The Dream Machine is the very definition of a passion project. This six part point-and-click adventure started its life in 2012 as a surreal story that took influence from the likes of Inception and Vanilla Sky, but with an interesting visual twist: it was entirely handmade and animated (à la early stop motion films). However, it then found itself in a protracted five year development cycle due to the sheer amount of work required to create and animate environments, objects, and characters for each chapter. To Cockroack Inc.’s credit though, they never let the game sink into the dreaded “development hell” hole, and the final chapter released earlier this year, wrapping up the narrative and making The Dream Machine a complete title that ends up feeling more like Silent Hill and The Shining by its conclusion.
But was it all worth it? Sort of. Like many passion projects, the game was created out of a desire to do something different. For The Dream Machine, that “something different” was the aforementioned entirely handcrafted and animated visual style. It’s not overstating things saying that this game is absolutely stunning, even in its darkest, most twisted moments. The ridiculous level of craftsmanship throughout is truly impressive. Environments that range from the mundane to the bizarre are highly detailed, characters are animated incredibly fluidly, and overall Cockroach Inc. have avoided that “cheap” look that a lot of stop motion media suffers from. The Dream Machine really benefits from its visual style, which adds a human element to contrast the utterly bonkers places the story ends up going and the game’s shift in tone from surreal-but-measured to downright uneasy.
It’s just unfortunate that I can’t say such positive things about everything else. Let’s start with the narrative. It’s hard to explain without spoilers. Scratch that, it’s just hard to explain, period. It’s not confusing or difficult to follow, it’s just...weird. Really weird. Almost too weird. And disturbing. Really disturbing. Almost too disturbing. What starts as a whimsical, surreal, and lighthearted - yet grounded - story of a man exploring his neighbour’s dreams fairly quickly turns into a hellish, horrifying, and at times disgusting ordeal with graphic, psychotic imagery and nightmarish scenarios.
It’s a turn that just reeks of trying too hard to be shocking and it’s not effective psychological horror, which is clearly the target The Dream Machine is aiming for. I’m no stranger to horror games and their often grotesque imagery - on the contrary, it’s my favourite genre - but there’s a way to make a player feel uneasy via disturbing content while also using said content to serve a narrative or thematic purpose. The Dream Machine doesn’t do that. Instead, it shows things like a stop motion death of a foetus for what feels like no other reason than to be shocking. It’s a real shame, as at times it feels like the story could have some truly interesting and poignant things to say about the psychology of dreams, interpersonal relationships, major life changes, and even mental health if it just kept the crazy in its pants for five minutes.
Gameplay is your standard point-and-click adventure affair, with nothing unique added to the mix. The entire game is one familiar, frustrating loop, whether you’re in the real world or inside someone’s dream: talk to any on screen characters to advance the story and/or receive a puzzle, run mouse cursor over every pixel, collect items, combine some items, and use combined items on another part of the screen. Rinse and repeat. Being inside people’s dreams has so much potential for interesting gameplay mechanics (something along the lines of Remember Me’s “Memory Remix” mechanic would have been fantastic), but instead you’re stuck with the same old point-and-click fare that has been the unchanged staple of the genre since the 90’s. Many of the puzzles are also frustratingly full of “adventure game logic”, requiring absurdly specific solutions that after requiring the use of a walkthrough had me saying “wait, you do what?” It’s infuriating at times, and any interest that the narrative may pique gets quashed by these frustrating puzzles which often halt progress.
There is no denying The Dream Machine has a unique, potentially juicy premise and a striking, memorable art style. It’s just that neither of those things can carry it for a whole six chapters when all the other elements aren’t of the same quality.
The Dream Machine (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
An admittedly wonderfully detailed passion project, but one that is mostly style over substance.